Yes, but how many *seconds* to midnight?
December 9, 2006 2:59 PM   Subscribe

So how close exactly were we to nuclear war?

It's often said that at some point during the past fifty years the world was "on the brink" of nuclear war - in hindsight, I wonder how close to the brink?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Go watch the documentary "The Fog of War". The answer, you might find, is far closed than you care to think about.
posted by BrodieShadeTree at 3:06 PM on December 9, 2006

As one answer, you have something like the Cuban Missile Crisis, where a couple more days where no one backed down could have ended in nuking Cuba.

On the other hand, there was a whole decade or two where the US was minutes away from firing missiles, based on what the USSR was doing. If they saw the right indications from satellites, etc, there would be no time for diplomacy or anything. Mix that with some first-strike game theory, and that was pretty shaky.

Which was closer to the brink? Hard to say.
posted by smackfu at 3:10 PM on December 9, 2006

Crap, should have read "On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov..."
posted by furtive at 3:12 PM on December 9, 2006

This was in the blue just a few days ago:
posted by joecacti at 3:29 PM on December 9, 2006

There's some close call stuff here.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:40 PM on December 9, 2006

The movie Thirteen Days is what ye be rentin'.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 3:48 PM on December 9, 2006

Best answer: Able Archer 83
posted by felix betachat at 3:52 PM on December 9, 2006

Best answer: The Doomsday Clock developed as a public relations mechanism by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has gone up and down since its founding, to as little as 2 minutes to midnight in 1953, when both the US and USSR tested thermonuclear weapons within 9 months of one another. Yet we may actually have come closer to nuclear war at other times, such as the Cuban Missle Crisis, and in late 1983, as we are learning only lately.

Near the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet threat was presumably greatest to the U.S. and vice versa, due to technical maturation of the relevant forces, and the stagnation of disarmament efforts, the flight time of Soviet submarine missiles to U.S. targets including New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Fransisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, Miami, and other major coastal cities, was estimated at 5 to 7 minutes. This 1989 analysis estimated Soviet first strike capability as wiping out 65 to 80% of our fixed ICBM forces in a first strike, along with 2/3 of our non-alerted bomber force, and 1/2 our in port submarines. The effects on our remaining command and control systems would have been highly variable, although many planners believed the USSR would not have pursued a first strike with maximum damage to civilian population centers, for fear of decapitating US military command and control of remaining US nuclear forces, and because doing so in a first strike situation would have eliminated any ability they had to hold US cities hostage to further action, as a means of mitigating US retaliation.

Frankly, what has made its way into public comment about the war planning of both sides in the late 1980's is chilling. It is becoming clearer and clearer that neither side was any longer able to clear predict the results of their own first strike capabilities, the survival of their retaliatory forces after a first strike by the other side, or the overall effects of second and third strikes on civilian populations. In such a situation, Mutally Assured Destruction as a governing principle for a continuing standoff of Cold War inaction seemed less and less tenable.

Many now believe that the November 2 - 11, 1983 NATO Able Archer war game excercise was taken by the Soviets as a definite nuclear threat, and that the Soviets came within hours, if not minutes, of launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike on both the U.S. and Western Europe, as a result. Following this, when the Reagan administration learned of the nearly disastrous Soviet response to Able Archer, Reagan himself became considerably more concilatory about arms control, and pressed for new rounds of arms control negotiation.

So, to answer your question in real terms, we were as close as the flight time of Soviet intermediate range missles to Europe, and submarine based missles to the U.S. in 1983; perhaps 180 to 420 seconds actual flight times. It was, as we're now learning, too close.
posted by paulsc at 4:02 PM on December 9, 2006

Hearsay-and-conjecture-filter: I was talking once with a professional indexer who had indexed some classified military documents from the Vietnam War. He said that the documents he was indexing said that there were six occasions during the "conflict" where nuclear weapons of one sort or another (he didn't specify) were loaded on planes and were en route to their destination when they were called off. I know that's probably worthless, and probably wrong, but it's all I got.
posted by Alt F4 at 5:21 PM on December 9, 2006

Notice that the last in the list of 20 was in 1995!

Also, eriko's comment on Able Archer.
posted by Chuckles at 6:08 PM on December 9, 2006

The Cuban missile crisis was probably the only time in recent history that everyone was aware of the threat in real time. If you lived close to a big city (or a few miles from a Nike missile silo installation), you pretty much got out of bed and put one foot in front of the other and figured there was a good chance you weren't coming home.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:31 PM on December 9, 2006

I spoke to a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts (I think a history or political science prof, but can't now remember who) who had done research on the bunker, the decommissioned former Strategic Air Command installation built into a mountain near the college, which was bought to serve as library storage space in the 1990s. When the college bought the bunker, the government had stripped nearly everything from it. Its function and everything that it had contained were officially secret. But they left a few items behind, and this professor had made a kind of personal hobby of finding out the history of the place. So, he started interviewing people who had worked there in the 1950s and 1960s. Lots of interesting info came out of this, but the thing that stuck with me is that he mentioned around 10 incidents that he knew of where there had been a close call, and 2 Petrov-like incidents, where all the info coming in indicated there was a Russian attack underway, and one guy decided not to give the launch order immediately but instead to wait. So we came close. If you wanted more specifics on those incidents, you should contact the Five College Book Depository and see if someone knows who the professor is.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:05 PM on December 9, 2006

If you want to get a feel for how close we were (eliminating the 'mistaken' motives, computer glitches etc.) you must see the movie Thirteen Days. Absolutely bone chilling. Bruce Greenwood played JFK and did a fine job. But the behind-the-scenes look at the Cuban Missile Crisis will shake you to the core. Notice in the link that the IMDB rating with 14,000+ ratings is 7.3 out of 10. This is your ticket to answer your question.

posted by Gerard Sorme at 9:16 PM on December 9, 2006

Seconding "Fog of War," investigating this will seriously freak you out.
posted by knave at 10:04 PM on December 9, 2006

Also check out the made-for-cable movie The Day Reagan Was Shot. (I thought it was based on a book, but it looks like I may be wrong about that). It gives a play-by-play acount of Reagan's shooting and pretty much everything that happened at the White House in the eight or ten hours immediately following. We didn't get as close to launching nukes on that day as they did during the Cuban missle crisis, but the topic certainly came up. And you'll spend some time wondering just exactly how crazy Al Haig really was.
posted by Clay201 at 12:11 AM on December 10, 2006

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